Attend your synagogue’s annual business meeting.
El Yenta Man and I were by far the youngest people on Sunday afternoon at Temple Mickve Israel (which my mother-in-law never wrote or said without also adding “the third oldest congregation in the United States”) in a packed sanctuary of folks listening to the state of this particular union.
There were a few exceptions, including our new Parnas (that’s what we call the President of the congregation; it’s one of the vestigial Sephardic traditions left by its founding members), but mostly I sort of felt like a spring filly amongst the older, wiser horses in the pasture. This was a welcome relief from the fancy dancy magazine party we attended the night before, where I was the only woman in heels less than four inches and had to keep fighting the urge to tuck in the brassiere straps of tipsy 20-somethings.
This year’s meeting couldn’t top the shocking drama of last year when a strange surprise vote deposed the rabbi of 20+ years, but there have certainly been a ton of shake-ups lately at this small Southern synagogue: The outgoing Parnas said that these weren’t the worst two years of his life, but they came pretty darn close. The community has been painfully split over the rabbi’s firing, causing rifts in decades-long friendships. The main administrator announced her resignation last week. And there’s the formidable task of searching for a new rabbi that will meet the needs of a congregation that has twice as many opinions as it does paying members. It’s not as sparky and earth-shattering as what’s going on in, say, Egypt, but it’s rocking this community pretty hard.
Looking out in to the sea of gray (and sorry, balding) heads in front me among the pews, I felt humbled and grateful. These are people who have given significant portions of their incomes and spare time to this congregation throughout their lifetimes—some of them go back several generations. My in-laws and their wonderful friends are included in this group, as well as Mr. David Byck, who was honored in Savannah’s Business Hall of Fame (watch the video to find out what a “person of quality” really is.) I may not agree with many of them on their politics or what makes an exciting Saturday service, but Mickve Israel has survived 275 years as a place where Jews of all flavors are welcome because they—and those who came before—took the effort to make it so. And also, as one congregant pointed out in a moving speech, it is important to come together and honor Rabbi Belzer’s contribution to that legacy.
It’s not a secret that I do not love going to synagogue. Any synagogue. Many of my generation feel the same. If it were only more…spiritual, we say. If it were more meaningful, more relevant, more child-friendly. But at the same time, we still want a traditional Jewish place. We want what we grew up with, the V’havta and the Sh’ma, the songs and Purim megillah reading and a place to cry happy tears when our children read from the Torah at their b’nai mitzvot. As American Jews or Jewish Americans or whatever we want to call ourselves, we need a place to pray, study and learn from our elders about how this elastic, hard-to-pin-down thing called our religion/heritage/culture works.
So in addition to making me feel cute and young, the annual meeting served to help me understand how important it is to make a little effort. Experiencing a sense of belonging might be about putting in before you get exactly what you want back out. If you want a place to worship Jewishly and your children to grow up knowing who they are, you’ve got to show up. And pay your dues, of course. Even if they’re reduced and you’re on a payment plan. (Look, I’ve been out of work for the better part of a year and half, but one day, one of these days, I’mma gonna write a fat check in the name of my mother-in-law for some brand new prayer books that read left to right.)
What I’ve found is that no matter how staid or dusty any synagogue leadership might be, everyone knows that it’s time to bring in some fresh air and new ideas, even the wacky ones. My Facebook profile lists “Hippie Jew” as my religion, yet at the reception after the meeting, I was approached to be on the public worship committee by the patriarch of one Savannah’s oldest Jewish families.
I was thinking I’d like to start with tambourines for everyone.